Cyclone Lusi damage, warnings and false alarms

Here’s the damage in our backyard after Cyclone Lusi:


After almost a week of warnings from media and the Metservice as well as two separate notifications sent to my iPhone from Civil Defence, Cyclone Lusi was a bit of an anti-climax. Auckland produces more damaging storms on a semi-regular basis that don’t generate any warnings at all and in fact the tornadoes that killed three people a couple of years ago were preceded by no warnings whatsoever.

This has made me wonder whether they went a bit overboard with the warnings in this instance. I tend not to think so as I always think it’s better to take precautions than be caught unaware, but a friend of mine thought it will have provoked the cry-wolf effect.

Civil Defence personnel, scientists and policy makers have a bit of a dilemma when it comes to communicating risk: fail to communicate the risks and they increase potential loss to life, infrastructure and livelihoods as well as possible charges of manslaughter as the Italian scientists responsible for communicating the earthquake risk in L’Aquila discovered. But false alarms may provoke the cry-wolf effect where the public loses trust in these warnings and so fails to heed advice at times of real danger.

In 2007, Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh taking many lives with it. According to news reports, many locals ignored the warnings because of a false tsunami alarm two months prior.

What can be done here to fix this problem? Should officials in Bangladesh not have issued a tsunami warning? Of course not. I think the problem here is more that people in our society do not understand science, maths and risk. If people were more aware of how science works and the uncertainties that go with it, then I think they’d be less likely to lose trust in situations of false alarm. It is far better, in my view, to issue the alarm, but perhaps it should be issued with some sort of caveat or probability. It might also be useful to communicate the cry-wolf effect so that people are aware of it. I personally would never want policy-makers to observe a cyclone headed my way and to decide that it would be better to keep me ignorant of its existence.

18 responses to “Cyclone Lusi damage, warnings and false alarms”

  1. Yes, that’s a very sensible approach. Very difficult to get it right and it has to be people’s choice, if you give the as much warning as possible, what they want to do.

  2. Agree that some warning is necessary. And yes…you need to oil the deck. Good project for the day says me who will not be taxing herself too much given that it’s a Sunday and all. 🙂 Don’t forget to flick off the storm damage first.

  3. Some of these events are certainly hard to predict, as an example take hurricane Irene on the East coast of USA, it did not reach the intensity predicted……….then, next year, came Sandy, the warnings were given and many people tended to ignore them………..result, over 200 people lost ther lives.
    Scientists are damned if they do and damned if they don’t………….my advice is listen to the warnings, obey any requirements……………if it doesn’t happen, what is lost………however if everything does go pear shaped you may very well save your life.

  4. Seems like predicting weather patterns in Wellington especially is a difficult thing to do. I live very close to the met service building and have learned to trust my eyes more than the forecast on their website.

    • Florian,

      Yes, I’ve heard Wellington weather is very unpredictable and very changeable too, this is also true of Auckland to some extent. I think the fact that New Zealand is an island makes it difficult to make weather predictions – although I could be wrong about this – because the oceans have such a big impact on local weather conditions.

      • Rachel,

        What you have said is quite true. Today meteorologists use many sophisticated scientific instruments, such as earth orbiting and geostationary satelites, Doppler radar and powerful computers, etc., and still with all this equipment their weather predictions are often wrong.

        There are many factors that do make accurate weather forecasting difficult. e.g. unseen changes in humidity, air temperature, air pressures , wind speed and direction, all can change at varying altitudes, can complicate matters for the meteorologists. That’s not all, complex interactions of the sun, clouds and the oceans which scientists do not fully understand and add to that, the problems of climate change, all go to make weather forecasting quite a problem…………..this is from a layman’s point of view. I guess a meteorologist coul add quite a bit more to that.

        Oh! by the way Rachel it was a fair dinkum, true blue Aussie expression!!!!

      • Good on ya, John :-).

        Interestingly, I found the weather forecasting when I was in the UK more accurate than in NZ. I suspect this – if it really is the case and not just my own impression – is because there are more instruments in that part of the world from which data can be taken.

  5. Your photo made me laugh Rachel! I was really wondering what you were going to say in this post!!!!! Reminds me of the opposite situation when the weather man who famously said in 1987 in the UK not to worry about strong winds and then we had a hurricane! He’s never lived it down.

    • That’s why I think they should just always give the warnings. When those tornadoes killed a few people a couple of years ago they gave no warnings whatsoever and were badly criticised for it. So I think it best just to issue the warning and point out that there’s some uncertainty in the prediction.

  6. Predicting weather in a chaotic system leads meteorologists into quite the quandry at times. How would you have liked to be the one who predicted a ‘window of opportunity’ for the invasion of Europe ( it was a near thing ) ? But predicting earthquakes is another matter entirely. I wondered why the court found against thee defendants for not doing the impossible !

    • John,

      The seismologists who were convicted of manslaughter were not convicted for failing to predict an earthquake but rather they were convicted for failing to communicate the risks. In other words, they told the people to go home and not to worry.

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